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Aviation is going through another ‘first’ as it is in its worst crisis ever. The recent turbulence caused by the coronavirus pandemic is still impossible to measure; its medium- and long-term impacts either.
There is neither a well-trodden recovery path to follow, nor a similar global situation to refer to. Nevertheless, the situation is not hopeless, and aviation is already showing initial positive recovery signs.
Many aviation analysts are working hard to develop forecasts and define at least the near-term future. Endless calculations, many interpretations.
But what do experienced pilots think? What are the assumptions of those who are in the industry for several decades already and have gone through at least some of the global crises? What could they suggest to their younger colleagues? Let’s see.
Which Previous Crisis Could be Compared to the Recent One?
Most of industry’s professionals unanimously agree that no previous crisis is comparable to this one. Only the outcomes of the 9/11 events could be close in the effect, but still, the impact was not as widespread as the COVID-19.
The same view is shared by Michael Ryan, a Boeing 737 captain, and Vytautas Stankevicius, a Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 captain. Both pilots are in aviation for over 35 years and have gone through various global turbulences, including the aftermath of the 9/11 events.
After the terrorist attacks, the demand was also historically low, some airlines did not re-emerge from the crisis, some were restructured to meet the post-crisis market. For example, one of the 9/11 results was the collapse of Swissair, from Switzerland and Sabena, the Belgian airline.
Later on, in their respective countries, other airlines were born out of the ashes and reformed into meeting the needs and routes that their predecessors had served (SWISS and Brussels Airlines). Therefore, the crisis triggered the establishment of new companies opening new opportunities.
“This may happen in the post-COVID-19 world, although it is too early to say as only after the lifting of quarantine measures, we will see the effect on the flying public, and the initial demand on airline travel,” explains Ryan.
In his opinion, a crisis of this nature will give airlines the ability to restructure and regroup, as it will be evident to their management, what practices and routes are not cost-effective. “This has been the pattern in the past, and it will be no different this time,” Ryan adds.
Pilots Should Be Ready for Bold Decisions
Even when the airlines’ market is unstable and leaves thousand without certainty over the near-term future, the situation is not that desperate as it might seem at first. Pilots are and will be needed. Even now, although the shortage will be a smaller fraction than the 2019 forecasts.
Ryan agrees that for commercial pilots, the next few years will be complicated and unclear. The climb out of the post-COVID-19 crisis will be tentative. It will be very reliant on the various governments’ reactions and measures that are in place to manage and contain the virus.
Some pilots will experience a reduction in salaries and cost-cutting of benefits and allowances by airlines to save on cost, some aviators will be laid off and forced to take more active steps to maintain proficiency and find a new company to fly for.
Vytautas Stankevicius, a captain at a charter airline, believes that airlines would make efforts to, first of all, keep the captains. It costs a lot for an airline to prepare a captain, correspondingly, making one redundant is not a feasible solution. Neither in near-term, nor in the long-term perspective.
Nevertheless, lay-offs are an inevitable part of business saving to preserve more cash. Thus, he also highlights that those who want to stay in the industry but have no immediate possibility to fly again could need to go for relatively brave decisions and be open to other opportunities coming even from abroad.
Job Offers from Abroad as a Possible Way of Beneficial Survival
Currently, the European market is not capable of offering enough opportunities for all the pilots who lost the job, indeed. However, for example, the Asian market is further headhunting competent pilots and could help unemployed aviators in other regions successfully survive the crisis.
“Airlines from China or Vietnam are still luring foreign pilots. Their markets are already slowly heading towards recovery, so I believe that young pilots could consider opportunities to be hired there as a way of effective survival. It is essential for a pilot to continue collecting experience,” explains Stankevicius.
Several years of flying in other regions could fill in a possible gap, keep or even enrich the set of professional skills, and secure one with additional experience which will be of a particular value upon the return to the home market.
“This may be a big decision if pilots have family and domestic commitments, but it may be just for a few years while the industry recovers. The main focus for pilots, is to remain positive and focused, and not allow the uncertainty and upset to interfere on the professionalism in the flight deck,” reveals Ryan.
Stankevicius adds that at this point, it is vital for pilots to maintain their recency, stay patient and do not lose confidence in their abilities. It is crucial to remember that the situation will get better, and there will always be a job for those who have desire, knowledge and experience.
Other Options for Pilots to Stay in the Industry
Even during the hard times, the life circle does not stop going around. Pilots are also ageing; thus, retirements are inevitable.
Each day a group of pilots leave the industry and pass their seats in the cockpit to younger colleagues. In the face of the current situation, many pilots who have several months left until their retirement might even decide not to get back to flying.
“I would imagine that many older pilots, who can retire, would do so and hopefully have the pension fund to observe the industry recover. The retirement of the older and more costly employees should be encouraged, as it gives the younger and more financially exposed pilots an opportunity to stay employed,” says Ryan.
Yet retirements are only a partial solution securing a limited number of younger professionals with a job. Not all the pilots will be able to continue performing their duties immediately after aviation takes off. It is not a secret, every pilot knows it and braces for various scenarios.
Nevertheless, the idea of abandoning aviation should come only as a last resort. There are plenty of other opportunities to wait until the storm is over by gaining another kind of experience yet still in aviation.
By maintaining type rating, proficiency and looking for a vacant position at an airline, a pilot can also earn hours and build additional background, for instance, as an instructor.
“If pilots are laid-off with no job possibilities, they should endeavour to keep their type rating current and look to training schools for employment as ground instructors, light aircraft flight instructors or simulation instruction. Aim to stay in the aviation environment as much as possible to be ready for the recovery. Up-skill as much as possible, if possible,” advises Ryan.
Stankevicius also believes that it is better to wait in the industry than to begin something new from scratch. Until the change of the profession begins bringing satisfaction and money back, quite a long time would be needed to get proper education and collect enough experience in the field.
Need for Pilot Training Will Always Be Present
It takes approximately two years to complete an integrated ATP training course. If a type rating follows on from this, it could take another three months. According to Ryan, if a student pilot commences training now, the industry will definitely be on the road to recovery in two years, just when the student pilot will be job-hunting.
“Fuel is now cheap, so the cost of flight training should reflect this. This would be an ideal time to invest in acquiring a skill, be it a PPL, CPL or an ATPL, a flight instructor certificate or a Type Rating Instructor.
Many industries will suffer after this COVID-19 crisis. If a person was thinking about investing in a flying career or changing career to aviation, now is the time to complete the process,” points out Ryan.
Stankevicius also nods in agreement that pilot training will always be on demand. This year young people can also consider beginning training to become a ready airline pilot in two years.
“Aviation will not die. People are used to travelling, to flying, it is impossible to eliminate aviation from our daily life. Maybe holiday-makers will need a couple of months to feel confident about flying again, to get used to new rules on social distancing and take it as a new standard. But still, people will get back to air travel and the demand will recover,” says Vytautas Stankevicius.
This way, in a couple of years, aviation will be thriving again, as it did after every single crisis which happened before.
Safer Aviation: More Strict Assessment Criteria
According to Stankevicius, the significant change in aviation after it recovers would be enhanced safety.
Before the COVID-19 hit, the world was dealing with a deficit of pilots, there was a global shortage for nearly 20,000 pilots. Thus, it was relatively easy to get into the profession after completing necessary training.
“Now, the situation would be different. I believe that after this crisis aviation will be much safer because airlines will aim to retain only the most competent and strongest professionals. This way also higher requirements will be set for those newly joining the industry,” shares his thoughts Stankevicius.
In any case, both experienced professionals claim that they are positive about the industry’s recovery and highly recommend to remain patient to whether the storm together.